28th May 2000
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Oddly Occupied

Light from darkness

In his concluding article of this series, Udena Atygalle sets sail to the magical Little Basses 

A lighthouseIn the days of the Impe-rial Lighthouse Service lighthouses were manned by "lighthouse families". T.M.M Hamin, Stores Officer at the Sri Lanka Ports' Authority is part of the present generation of one such family. "It's part of the family history, a tradition. If you say Hamin nobody knows us but if you say lighthouse Hamin everybody knows us," he explained.

The Vasgunewardena, Jayawardena, Weerarathne and Hettiarachchi families are the other clans still in the service of the lighthouse. In the early days, the period at sea was six months. Communication with Kirinda was via a firebrand with the aid of Morse Code. This later changed to a five-cell torch and then to the VHF radio sets of today. The various flags used to warn ships of the imminent danger of shipwreck too have been made redundant by the radio equipment.

Mr. Hamin recalled how his father, when at home would talk mostly of the loneliness of the six-month stay. "Bad news was never conveyed to the lighthouses even if someone had died," he disclosed. 

The staple diet of the lighthouse-keepers had been potatoes, dhal, butter, corned beef and the fish caught, out at the tower. Today the diet is more balanced and includes vegetables and wheat- based products.

Mr. Hamin maintains, "The dried fish from the lighthouses are the best I have ever tasted." Even today fishing is a major side income source for the keepers. Lobsters are caught and kept in cages, until a fishing boat would come near enough for a swimmer to go across and sell them.

The Little Basses as promised did have an inexplicable, rustic magic about it. The faded fortifications of the tower broke the billowing waves into a thousand pieces of white froth. Yet the gentler waves, they allowed to seep around the tower, unresisted. 

The lights atop the 135-metre tower gave a double flash every 10 seconds: a warning to ships that were getting too close to the reef. Although we had travelled more than 30 kilometres from Kirinda, the desolate, almost virgin beaches of the Yala nature reserve were in clear sight. I was left wondering whether the sight of them so near, yet so inaccessible made matters better or worse for the weary keepers.

Chief Lighthouse Inspector B. Piyasena said, "Although it is so near to the semi–arid coastline of Yala, the lighthouse itself is in a wet zone area." It felt wet, the salty hot wind blew here too, but was mollified by a blanket of humidity. The lighthouse was the same format as the Great Basses with a few differences, like a freshwater tank with an increased capacity of 5000 gallons. 

Yet here, beneath the romantic aura there seemed to be an underlying desperation among the keepers.

The Principal Lighthouse -keeper (PLK) A.P.L Vasgunewardena, a former navyman said, "We get annoyed, almost angry when the relief operation does not happen on the scheduled day. But the rough seas during the monsoon sometimes make it impossible for a relief operation to be completed in one day. On these days we go ashore at the Yala beach with the permission of the wildlife authorities." 

Towards the end of an assignment at a Basses lighthouse, things sometimes do get unbearable. Recently there had been a confrontation where the PLK in charge had been on one side and the rest on the other - almost a mutiny.

Although things have improved with TVs and VCRs helping to while away the time, Vasgunewardena says, "It would help if we were given cell phones so that we can be in touch with our families." In fact, some cellular phone services did work on the lighthouse with a few keepers having their own private phones.

The keepers are given training in firefighting, survival at sea and first-aid. The rest is "on the job training". 

"There were 800 applicants the last time we advertised for the post. The first test is a sea swim, which most fail and it makes our job of choosing much easier!" Mr. Piyasena said.

The chosen candidates should be "handymen". They have to handle every emergency, every situation themselves. Going ashore doesn't come into the picture. "Almost three out of 10 leave the service after a Basses assignment. There doesn't seem to be the same dedication as in the olden days," he adds.

Although the trend around the world is to 'unman' lighthouses, unmanning the Basses would require the building of helipads and solar panels, plus throw up the problem of security. In fact this coast area is known to have been the site of some LTTE activity during the past. The keepers too were worried about their security.

The seas were rough and the journey back was going to take longer than expected. By now, almost four days of continuous travelling both on land and sea were taking their toll on us. Limbs were getting heavy and eyes tired. Yet it would have been a shame not to soak in all there was to see as we navigated around the alluring Yala coast. And so up in the gallery area I was, when a lighthouse-keeper returning home, struck up a conversation.

His name remains an indiscernible scribble in my notebook. But I remember him mentioning that he used to work at the stock market. He inquired whether we would be heading for Colombo that day. By now it was well past 6 p.m. and with around 10 hours of sleep for the past three nights we were going nowhere but to bed that night. He would be going home to Colombo and unlike us he had precious little time to enjoy at home. 

As we chatted he explained why the lighthouse-keepers were dressed so scrappily. The answer was simple. "It isn't practical anymore. At the Basses we have to do the work usually done by other workers as well." The smart merchant navy uniforms of yesteryear had been scrapped.

Usually it is to the Dondra or the Beruwala lighthouses that Senior PLKs get there final assignment before retirement: a tribute to a job well done. 

By now we were back at Kirinda. A final round of goodbyes and we were ferried to the jetty. As we trekked towards our vehicle I could not but wonder what those eight men we had left behind at the two towers in the middle of the ocean were doing. 

In the service of giving light and direction to the nautical world, could their own lives be directionless and in darkness?

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